Study Guide

Sholom Aleichem

by Sholom Rabinowitz

Sholom Aleichem Essay - Aleichem, Sholom

Aleichem, Sholom

Introduction

Sholom Aleichem 1859-1916

(Also transliterated as Sholem-Aleykhem; pseudonym of Solomon Rabinowitz, also transliterated as Rabinovich, Rabinovitsh, and Rabinovitch) Ukrainian-born Yiddish short story writer, novelist, and dramatist.

One of the founding authors of Yiddish literature, Sholom Aleichem's reputation is based primarily on humorous short stories, such as those adapted for the musical Fiddler on the Roof, in which he depicted the Jewish Pale of Settlement, those areas in Russia to which Jews were restricted during the nineteenth century. While other Russian Jews of his era wrote in either Hebrew or Russian, Sholom Aleichem chose to write in Yiddish, a language spoken by eastern European Jews that is derived from High German but usually written with Hebrew characters. His stories reflect the determined optimism and faith of Jewish people amid poverty and persecution, bringing humor to this grim setting through absurd situations and revealing monologues. Sholom Aleichem used the literary forms of the monologue and the epistle to present his characters in their own idiom with no intervention from a narrator, a method that led to his fame as the "folk voice" of Ukrainian Jewry.

Biographical Information

The son of a prosperous, educated merchant, Sholom Aleichem was born in the Ukrainian city of Pereyaslav and spent his early years in a shtetl, a small, impoverished Jewish community that functioned much like a medieval town. His early proclivity for writing so impressed his father that he sent him to a Russian secondary school, where he would receive a secular education, rather than to a yeshiva, the traditional Jewish religious academy for advanced studies. After graduation, Sholom Aleichem moved to Kiev and took a job as a government rabbi and began to publish articles in Hebrew and Russian on educational and liturgical reform. Wanting to reach the large audience of shtetl Jews who could not read Hebrew, he decided to write in Yiddish, a language then derided by educated Jews. Protecting his professional reputation by adopting the pseudonym Sholom Aleichem (a Hebrew greeting meaning "peace be with you"), he published his first short story, "The Two Stones," in 1883. Over the next few years, Sholom Aleichem wrote critically acclaimed short stories and several novels, hoping to provide more serious and artistic examples of Yiddish writing in contrast with the frivolous romances that prevailed in Yiddish literature of that time. Having established himself as a respectable Yiddish author, he encouraged other Yiddish writers by founding and editing Di yidishe folksbiblyotek, an annual devoted to Yiddish literature.

Throughout the 1890s, Sholom Aleichem wrote stories incessantly. The immensely popular Tevye stories and Menachem Mendl series date from this period, and their success gave Sholom Aleichem's family enough security to enable him to devote himself entirely to writing. In 1905 pogroms, in which thousands of Jews were massacred, forced the family to flee into exile. Despite his immense popularity, Sholom Aleichem soon found himself in financial trouble. Having sold his copyrights to unscrupulous publishers years before, he received no royalties from the sales of his works. He traveled constantly, giving lectures and readings in Europe and America, until he collapsed from tuberculosis in Russia in 1908. While Sholom Aleichem recovered in Italy, unable to pay his debts, some friends raised money by sponsoring a twenty-fifth anniversary jubilee in honor of his first story. They received donations from all over the world and arranged to reclaim his copyrights from publishers. Financially secure and having recovered his health by 1913, Sholom Aleichem resumed his lecture and reading tours. However, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 drove him and his family once more into exile. They moved to New York, where he died in 1916.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Sholom Aleichem's fame rests primarily on his short stories, which were among the first Yiddish works to be accepted as serious literature. In their detailed representation of shtetl life, these stories successfully reflect the chaotic world of eastern European Jews. As well as documenting the Jews' daily suffering from hunger and persecution, he addressed the problem of changing values among the younger generation, particularly their increasing secularization and disregard for tradition. Sholom Aleichem's stories never follow a conventional plotline: they begin in the midst of trouble, more disasters occur, then they break off without resolution. However, instead of focusing on the disruption and calamity that provide much of the substance for his short stories, he maintained a tone of humor and optimism. For example, Tevye the dairyman, one of Sholom Aleichem's most popular characters, distracts the reader from the tragedy of his stories through his audacious challenges to God and his humorous misquotations of religious verses. Menachem Mendl, the fast-talking dreamer who fails in every business venture he attempts, amuses the reader with his outrageous plans and his frenzied pace. Presenting himself as a listener in his stories and allowing his characters to speak without authorial intervention, Sholom Aleichem added to the humor by having his characters inadvertently reveal their attitudes and faults.

Critical Reception

Despite the careful craftsmanship of Sholom Aleichem's narratives, the naturalness of his characters' speech and the accuracy of his descriptions of shtetl life led to his initial reputation as simply a "recorder" of Jewish life. Early critics focused on the cheerfulness of the characters, on their "laughter through tears" as a way of coping with the endless adversity in their lives. More recent critics have noted a tragic side to Sholom Aleichem's stories, maintaining that his works inspire sympathy as well as laughter. Significant change has occurred in the critical estimates of Tevye: once seen as a cheerful but naïve character who inadvertently misquotes scripture through his ignorance, he has recently been described as a perceptive man who consciously manipulates religious quotations to comment on his life and on God. While Sholom Aleichem's writing is now considered more complex than it was previously, his importance as a founder of Yiddish literature has never been disputed. Likewise, critics and readers have consistently appreciated the humorous and poignant stories in which he masterfully evoked the resiliency and hopefulness of shtetl Jews.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Tevye der milkhiger [Tevye's Daughters] 1894

Menakhem-Mendl [The Adventures of Menakhem-Mendl] 1895

Mottel Peyse dem khazns [Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor's Son] 1907-16

The Old Country 1946

Inside Kasrilevke 1948

Stories and Satires 1959

Old Country Tales 1966

Some Laughter, Some Tears 1968

The Best of Sholom Aleichem 1979

Holiday Tales 1979

Other Major Works

Stempenyu [Stempenyu] (novel) 1889

Yosele Solovey (novel) 1890

Tsezeyt un tseshpreyt (drama) 1905

In shturm (novel) 1907

Samuel Pasternak (drama) 1907

*Stempenyu (drama) 1907

Blondzhnde shtern [Wandering Stars] (novel) 1912

Shver tsu zayn a yid (drama) 1914

Dos groyse gevins (drama) 1916

Ale verk fun Sholom Aleichem. 28 vols. (short stories, novels, dramas, and unfinished autobiography) 1917-25

The Great Fair (unfinished autobiography) 1955

*This work is an adaptation of the novel Stempenyu.

Criticism

Ba 'Al-Makhshoves (essay date 1908)

SOURCE: "Sholem Aleichem: A Typology of His Characters," in Prooftexts, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 7-15.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1908, the critic examines prominent character types in Sholom Aleichem's stories and how they reflect Jewish reaction to life in exile.]

Sholem Aleichem is one of the fortunate Yiddish writers who does not have to wait for an anniversary celebration to publicize his name among the broad masses of our people; his name was a household word before the critics even began to take notice of him. It was not unusual for an entire town to wait with baited breath for a new issue of Der yid in which...

(The entire section is 3870 words.)

Meyer Wiener (essay date 1941)

SOURCE: "On Sholem Aleichem's Humor," in Prooftexts, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1986, pp. 41-54.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1941, Wiener discusses Aleichem's unique brand of humor.]

The Victory over Human Fear

Brave children, when fearful upon entering a dark room at night, sing cheerful songs to themselves. Like most metaphors, this one is only partially applicable, but there is a kind of humor that depends, in part, on this sort of spunky singing in the dark. So too, in Sholem Aleichem's humor we find not only laughter and tears, but the sort of merriment that comes from having overcome and tamed the fear of...

(The entire section is 5704 words.)

Alfred Kazin (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Sholom Aleichem: The Old Country," in Contemporaries, Atlantic-Little, Brown & Company, 1962, pp. 271-78.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in 1956 as an introduction to Selected Stories of Sholom Aleichem, Kazin assesses Aleichem's treatment of Jewish people and the Yiddish language.]

(The entire section is 1482 words.)

Irving Howe (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Sholom Aleichem: Voice of Our Past," in his A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics, Horizon, 1963, pp. 207-15.

[In the following excerpt, Howe discusses Aleichem's significance within the Jewish literary tradition, asserting 'He is, I think, the only modern writer who may truly be said to be a culture-hero. "]

Fifty of sixty years ago the Jewish intelligentsia, its head buzzing with Zionist, Socialist and Yiddishist ideas, tended to look down upon Sholom Aleichem. His genius was acknowledged, but his importance skimped. To the intellectual Jewish youth in both Warsaw and New York he seemed old-fashioned, lacking in complexity and...

(The entire section is 1413 words.)

Sol Gittleman (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Stories for Jewish Children," in Sholom Aleichem: A Non-Critical Introduction, Mouton, 1974, pp. 143-60.

[In the following essay, Gittleman examines Aleichem's portrayals of Jewish mothers and sons in his short fiction and finds similarities in Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint.]

"If only you realize what we're doing for you. Do him a favor and he doesn't appreciate it. Don't jump, don't run. Walk like a human being."

—Mother to her child in "The Ruined Passover"

1. PORTNOY IN KASRILEVKE

It may seem somewhat strained . . . to make reference to a...

(The entire section is 6830 words.)

Joseph Butwin and Frances Butwin (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Speaking Voice," in Sholom Aleichem, Twayne Publishers, 1977, pp. 95-124.

[Frances Butwin is a Polish-born American translator and critic. With Julius Butwin, she selected and translated a collection of stories by Sholom Aleichem, which was published in 1946 as The Old Country. She has since translated several other volumes of Sholom Aleichem's works. Joseph Butwin is an American educator and critic who has published articles on English, French, and Yiddish literature. In the following essay from their biographical and critical study of Sholom Aleichem, the authors explore Aleichem's use of skaz—the spoken taleand compare it to American examples from...

(The entire section is 12853 words.)

Hana Wirth-Nesher (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Voices of Ambivalence in Sholem Aleichem's Monologues," in Prooftexts, Vol. 1, No. 2, May, 1981, pp. 158-71.

[In the following essay, Wirth-Nesher discusses the paradoxical nature of the monologue form in Aleichem's short fiction.]

It is generally recognized that Sholem Aleichem's success as a writer rests upon an almost mystical intermingling of laughter and trembling, the combination of traits that Bellow singled out as characteristic of Jewish literature in general.1 Since the appearance of his fiction in the 1880s, generations of readers have been asking themselves just how Sholem Aleichem manages to both move and amuse them simultaneously. A...

(The entire section is 6662 words.)

David Neal Miller (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "'Don't Force Me to Tell You the Ending': Closure in the Short Fiction of Sh. Rabinovitsh (Sholem-Aleykhem)," in Neophilologus, Vol. LXVI, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 102-10.

[In the following essay, Miller considers the problematic endings of Aleichem's short fiction.]

The nonspecialist (I shall use a none-too-hypothetical undergraduate student as example) comes to the works of Rabinovitsh unaided by a sense of the world, or rather worlds, portrayed in his fictions: holidays, rituals, customs, folkways—the common cultural coin of Eastern European Jewry—all must be glossed and explained. If the student comes to these texts unaided, however, he or she also...

(The entire section is 4628 words.)

Victoria Aarons (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Authorial Voice in the Kasrilevke Stories," in Author as Character in the Works of Sholom Aleichem, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985, pp. 73-99.

[In the following excerpt, Aarons examines the defining characteristics of Aleichem' s shtetl stories.]

At the heart of Sholom Aleichem's short stories, monologues and feuilletons lies Kasrilevke, the fictionalized shtetl, representative of the small villages at the outskirts of the cities where Jews were forced to live. In one of the Kasrilevke stories, "The Town of the Little People," Sholom Aleichem explains the origin of the name, Kasrilevke:

The town of the little people...

(The entire section is 9636 words.)

Emanuel S. Goldsmith (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Divine Humor of Sholom Aleichem," in Judaism, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 391-401.

[In the following essay, Goldsmith contends that Aleichem's "humor is a unique phenomenon in the history of Jewish culture and a surprising mutation in the evolution of the Jewish spirit."]

The basic attitude of traditional Judaism towards humor is expressed in the Talmudic injunction that "it is forbidden to make fun of anything except idolatry."1 It was the ethical earnestness, ritual strictness, other-worldliness and asceticism of the Talmud, the Midrash and later rabbinic literature which set the tone for Jewish life until modern times. Despite the fact...

(The entire section is 5270 words.)

Jonathan Boyarin (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Sholem-Aleykhem's 'Stantsye Baranovitsh'," in Identity and Ethos: A Festschrift for Sol Liptzin on the Occasion of His 85th Birthday, edited by Mark H. Gelber, Peter Lang, 1986, pp. 89-99.

[In the following essay, Boyarín discusses Aleichem's narrative technique as evinced in his short story "Stantsye Baranovitsh."]

Sholem-Aleykhem's works bridge the gulf between us and the world he evokes. That gulf, immeasurably deepened by the Holocaust, was already evidenced by the distinction between the Russian-speaking author, Sholem Rabinovitsh, and the Yiddish persona "Sholem-Aleykhem." One aspect of Rabinovitsh's enduring genius may be identified as the awareness of...

(The entire section is 3725 words.)

David G. Roskies (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane," in AJS Review, Vol. XIII, Nos. 1-2, Spring-Fall, 1988, pp. 27-46.

[In the following essay, Roskies examines Aleichem's use of mythology in his short fiction and places his work within the context of Yiddish literature.]

What could be more obvious for a writer who called himself How-Do-You-Do than to place folklore and folkspeech at the center of his work? After all, it was his childhood friend Shmulik who had inducted him into the world of storytelling; ever since then, the celebrated author could have mined the treasures of Jewish myth and legend as his natural legacy. But Shmulik's formative role in From the...

(The entire section is 8135 words.)

Anna Halberstam-Rubin (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Extra-Legal Disabilities, Raids, Pogroms and Other Forms of Hostility," in Sholom Aleichem: The Writer as Social Historian, Peter Lang, 1989, pp. 65-84.

[In the following excerpt, Halberstam-Rubin asserts that Aleichem's short stories demonstrate how ignorance, prejudice, and violent physical attacks affected the day-today lives of the Jewish people in his time.]

The focus of this [essay] is the illustration of the ways Sholom Aleichem captured and illuminated such historical phenomena as raids, pogroms, the blood-libel and other forms of Jew-baiting. These "extra-legal" hostilities paralleled and were related to the formal, anti-Jewish legislation such as the...

(The entire section is 7511 words.)

V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Sholom Aleichem: Pain and Laughter," in Lasting Impressions: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1990, pp. 11-15.

[In the following essay, Pritchett favorably assesses Aleichem's humor and storytelling ability.]

Sholom Aleichem is one of the prolific masters of Yiddish comic storytelling, an art springing from the oral folk traditions of Eastern Europe and crossed by the pain and laughter of racial calamity. Like all comics he is serious, has one foot in the disorder and madness of the world and, as a Jew, the other foot in the now perplexing, now exalted, adjuration of the Law and the Prophets. Did God really choose their fate for the Jewish people? If so,...

(The entire section is 1885 words.)